BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Three weeks into the job, Brunswick County Manager Randell Woodruff is settling into his new office in Bolivia. Behind his desk, there’s a large map printout his colleagues offered to help the longtime coastal county manager get accustomed to the county’s large layout and 19 municipalities.
Woodruff has spent more than a decade as the top-ranking staff member along the North Carolina coastline, having served most recently in Pender County, Beaufort County, and Camden County.
Related: New Pender County manager addresses water capacity, school overcrowding, and other top issues
In many ways, Brunswick County is already familiar to Woodruff. But it is the most populated county he’s led, with over 1,000 county employees.
[Author’s note: this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity]
Have you found a new home in Brunswick County? Generally, what area of the county are you living in, and how do you like it so far?
I’m still commuting right now, I live in Hampstead. I’ll be moving, but we’re in the process of working that out. Hopefully, I’ll be living in the county before Christmas — I hope.
We’re looking in different areas but it sort of seems like it may be in the northern area, but I’m not exactly sure yet. We’ve sort of narrowed it down to a couple of places — my wife is handling that.
I’ve been coming to Brunswick since the 80s. Ocean Isle was the beach that we pretty much went to. So I’ve been familiar with the area and the region but I never really lived here until I moved to Pender five years ago.
At Pender County, you used to send out weekly government updates. They were packed with info from all departments and sent directly to the press and residents who signed up to receive them. Do you plan on bringing that back in Brunswick County?
We’re going to do that here too. That was one of the things — you asked, ‘What’s one change — no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential — you’ve already made in house?’ That was my response to that.
I have very few changes to things that I’ve done at this point, but that was one thing included in that, Meagan [Kascsak, Brunswick County public information officer] and I have been working on that. We’ve already introduced it to the department heads. Initially, we’re going to do it monthly just to get into the routine of it. Because it’s something new here for them.
There’s so many good things being done here in this county by all the different departments, it’s incredible. The problem here, we almost have too much information to send out. Although what I sent out in Pender, I thought was really good, but sometimes it could be 20 or 25 pages.
But initially, it was done to give the board more information. Then we started sharing it with the press. And then we even started sharing it with citizens. When the StarNews did something that was complimentary of it a couple years ago, that caused us to get 60 or 70 citizens that wanted to get it.
So we want to do something similar here, but we’re so fortunate to have Meagan, because she’s going to make it probably a little more professional. We want to give y’all some of the highlights without giving you six pages from each department so it won’t take you two weeks to figure out what’s in there.
It’s going to be a lot more concise. She’s working on some ideas about how to streamline it. There are just a tremendous amount of good things that we can include.
Your previous experience is primarily managing coastal counties. From a managerial perspective, what’s similar and what’s different about these counties?
Every county that I’ve been in has gotten larger. And while they are all coastal counties, Brunswick is by far the largest and strongest financially. Northeastern North Carolina, where Camden [County] is, it’s a small rural county with only 10,000 population. And it’s doubled in recent years, compared to what it used to be, only four or 5,000.
Northeastern part of the state, in some areas, is very economically challenged with their ability to do things because they don’t have the economic development and they don’t have a strong tax base to support economic spending. Therefore, they’re not able to do as much for their citizens as some of the counties in some of the stronger regions, like this region, with New Hanover, Pender, and Brunswick.
What policy-related challenges have you seen play out in other coastal counties that aren’t necessarily unique to Brunswick County?
The common themes you’ll see in all of the communities, things like development issues, when you’re talking about developing the property, the balance between protecting the environment and allowing your economy to grow by new development, new homes, new businesses to be built.
It is a really difficult balance in much of eastern North Carolina because of the sensitive environment that we live in. Everything we do here, we’re always trying to preserve and protect the environment. So I think you have that from Virginia to South Carolina and far beyond the coastal areas.
The coastal areas are always susceptible to major weather events. So that’s pretty much consistent up and down, and you’re required to have a much stronger emergency management program in coastal areas. On the financial side, all of these coastal communities have to be able to maintain a strong, healthy, fund balance because you never know when an event may strike, like Florence.
You have to be able to take action or whether it’s protecting the citizens or bringing in emergency equipment or whatever it might be, it’s very important. Sometimes, people may say, ‘Why do you try to maintain that fund balance? Do you really need that?’ And the truth is you do. You do need to maintain that because it gives you options and it gives you freedom and flexibility to do things that otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do.
Having worked in some of the more lower-wealth areas up to the north, in the northeast, for instance, those counties were going to be more, unfortunately, they’ll be more dependent on outside entities to come in and help them, such as FEMA. Which we do as well, in this region, we take advantage of that and utilize that to take care of our county, but when you’re able to have your own resources you can do more and you’re not as restrained just because you have less.
Brunswick County is extremely fortunate to be able to have the assets and the capability to be able to do the things that they’ve done over the years to plan and protect for the future.
Brunswick was in a much stronger position to handle Florence than Pender was, right?
Well, Pender was in a good position too. Had we not been in a good position, we would have really been — it would have been awful. It was awful as it was, but we were very fortunate that the board there had been very prudent and things had strengthened their financial position quite a bit to help them to be able to endure Florence, otherwise, it would have been impossible with all the debris cost and everything that the hurricane entailed. Just as Brunswick was here, they were well prepared.
Is your preference for the coast because you like the beach?
I always liked it. The coast has been real interesting. A lot of things are very much similar up and down the coast of North Carolina.
You find a lot of common themes in the people that live in the North Carolina coast. A lot of really interesting people, a lot of interesting cultural themes with the history of the regions. The history of the marine and water activity, fishing, and all that stuff. A lot of unique people, and interesting people. Some of the most historic areas of North Carolina, the coastal areas, where the original English settlements took place and all that, so it’s a pretty interesting place to live.
I grew up in Virginia, so Virginia and North Carolina have a lot in common. Many areas, you’ll have these rural counties that are very small and sparsely populated and then you’ll have a huge urbanized area with a much larger population. North Carolina is unique in that you don’t have a lot of large cities on the coast other than Wilmington, which is a large city for us, but compared to D.C. or Raleigh somewhere, it’s not very large. But it’s still a wonderful place.
Have you gotten the chance to catch up on the H2GO drama?
I’m trying to get up to speed but there’s so much history there.
I guess you have to be an eternal optimist and hope that things will calm down eventually and cooler heads will prevail. It seems like there’s so much history of difficult situations that it’s going to take some time.
One thing about the county, having [Public Utilities Director] John Nichols in place, he’s an extremely impressive guy. And he knows what he’s doing very well. So he’s going to be our expert.
It seems like since the lawsuit started the county — elected officials and staff members — have kept a pretty level-headed approach to it all.
I think the county has done a good job to not get into the drama. We have enough difficulties to deal with without that. I think that hopefully now that all their elections are over and behind them, maybe that will help some too. You would think at some point the parties are going to have to come together and try to develop some type of consensus, but time will tell I guess.
I hope that for the good of the citizens and the customers and the taxpayers in the future, that maybe there’s hope to resolve it. But it’s way above my level at this point. I think the county’s in a strong position because our board is very committed to doing good things for the county. So I think the county is going to be there, if we’re able to, to be part of the resolution.
With a strong financial background, recently-retired County Manager Ann Hardy left some major utility upgrades and expansions (namely, $260 in revenue bonds) in your hands. Pender County has its own capacity issues tied to explosive growth, which your successor Chad McEwen will surely be tasked with handling (he listed it as one of his top priorities when your roles transitioned). At this point, have you gotten the chance to get yourself familiar with all of the details?
I’ve been getting acclimated really on a weekly basis. Meeting in numerous meetings with our utility staff and our finance staff to get up to speed on all of that. They didn’t just rush into that — it’s been a very thoughtful process for the county. Of course, Ann [Hardy] was an exceptionally well-qualified financial mind herself in addition to our finance director, Julie Miller, and others in her department. So they’ve, working hand-in-hand with [Public Utilities Director] John Nichols, they’ve laid the groundwork for that planning to be in process.
I think they’ve done a very good job. I’ve been involved, since I’ve been here, with several discussions with our bond counsel. It’s gone extremely well. Local Government Commission has been involved with us. They’ve followed all the proper procedures to carry it forth and make it successful. A portion of the bonds have been sold through the current date, but it’s such a large project that will go on for quite some time, but it’s very structured and well-organized.
That’s something I think Brunswick County really should be commended about. The smart planning and investment in infrastructure, whether it be water or sewer or whether it be other types of government facilities and buildings. I think the county has really been very proactive in that. The Board of Commissioners and others and staff have really worked to make sure, you know, we can’t always keep up with the growth, but they’re doing the best job here of probably many many areas that are having phenomenal growth as Brunswick County is having. It’s been extremely impressive to me to see what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished. I look forward to being a part of it as time goes on.
Are you at a place where you can call Ms. Hardy if you’ve got a question, or is she off into paradise?
She probably won’t answer. I’ll probably get her voicemail [Woodruff said jokingly].
But yeah, she’s always there if I need something. She and I talk a lot. The first week and a half when I started, she was still here and she helped me out with a lot of things and gave me a good orientation. As we talked, if I don’t get in it and learn and study and figure things out, it’s not good for us to have someone telling you everything. You sort of have to learn, interact with the people. It’s better to get up to speed that way than to have someone just giving you everything or telling you everything. So I prefer to learn it. It’s been incredible all of the information that I’ve tried to absorb in this period of time. But everyone has been so helpful and hospitable to me since I’ve been here, it’s been really impressive.
Our Deputy County Manager Steve Stone is a true public servant and is incredibly dedicated to this community. Steve is always willing to support and listen to his colleagues and our residents. He has tremendous insight into the history and culture of Brunswick County that is invaluable to our organization, and I appreciate his honesty, sincerity and positivity. The County is lucky to have him, and I am looking forward to our continued work together serving Brunswick County.
You now manage the fastest-growing county in North Carolina. What specific ideas or perspectives are you bringing to the table to help the county handle continued growth?
I think along with what I just said about how they’ve been very proactive in looking ahead and trying to be proactive and not reactive, that also has played into the planning side. With our planning staff here, we have really talented people.
[Planning Director Kirstie Dixon] and her group, they are always sort of the visionaries of the county government. Moving us forward, giving us new ideas, things to look at, things to consider, things that are important for the future development of the county. I think that’s very important that we stay engaged in the planning arena.
It’s not all financial, it’s other things too. It’s developing amenities and infrastructure that the public wants. The county obviously already has a great network of community parks placed around the county that are very heavily utilized. it’s something I’ve found over the years, is people don’t really mind seeing their tax dollars used for recreation and athletic-type facilities because they participate as adults, their kids participate, and that just improves the quality of life in the county.
Given the region’s growth, some longtime Brunswick County locals aren’t as excited about the influx of newcomers and continued development of the coastal landscape. How will you balance the county’s resources to be inclusive of all its residents?
We’re very fortunate that we get a lot of retirees coming here. But they’re still active retirees. So they come in, they need facilities, we have all of these senior centers, for instance, which is very impressive — a strong organization with all kinds of services and activities for that population.
We’re lucky that the county, much of our growth is retirees. That is bringing in a lot of talented, educated, sometimes retired people that come here and really contribute a lot to this community and the culture of Brunswick County.
When people come in, they contribute greatly. People retire here, they move here, they bring their resources and their assets with them when they come here to retire or live here. We’re blessed to have that diversity in the people that are coming here. Where some other counties tend to get more, younger families with children, that’s nothing negative, it’s just a different demographic coming in.
With our situation here, we’re lucky that we’re not building three schools every year or something to accommodate the new student population. So we’re able to do things that the county does here even to support students going to the community college.
[The Brunswick Guarantee], that’s something that many counties would really love to be able to do that we’re fortunate enough to do here and something our Commissioners are very proud that the county is able to support. To me, it’s great.
I think, people that have lived here all their lives, they derive a lot of benefit from the county growing and new people moving in.
The economy grows, that’s what strengthens the economy and adds wealth to the community when people come in. It’s not government — the county government — we’re not the job creators. We hire staff and create those kinds of jobs but we’re not out there — the people that really strengthen the economy in the county are people investing here in property and facilities and building things. Those are the ones that are really adding and building this economy here. I think those are the benefits that we’re all able to take advantage of as this growth continues to take place.
There are so many counties that would give anything to have the problems that Brunswick County has with growth. We’re lucky to have it.
In eastern North Carolina, when you go north of here, there are just many many counties that are not growing. They’re losing population. They have a lot of poverty and just things are stagnant. So we’re lucky to have the issues that we have in this entire region — New Hanover, Pender, Brunswick — we’re lucky to have what we have here and to be a part of a thriving region.
When I was in Pender, we used to talk at budget time with our board about how in one year, our tax base would grow more than many other counties in five or six or ten years. So that’s incredible. You can’t take it for granted because the economy changes. You’re always going to have a recession at some point. It’s just natural.
Again, we’re so fortunate here to be in a region that is somewhat insulated from that because people want to come here from all over. When you look at the information, the documents, who owns property in Brunswick County, there’s people that own property here from every other county in North Carolina. There’s people that own property here from every other state in the United States. That is phenomenal that you can live in a place where you have that type of attraction and that kind of growth. We’re just really blessed by it.
I know sometimes people tend to think, well, this is really tough when newcomers are moving in and it’s making it more challenging for us to be able to get around, we have more traffic and all this stuff. But you have to look at the benefits. There’s a lot more positives to having a steady growing local economy than it is to not having any growth.
If you’re living in some of these counties that are not having any growth, pretty much, the only way they get more revenue is taxes. That’s not very popular with the public. But in this region, we’re just blessed because you’re naturally having that built-in growth that comes every year, so that generates more revenue to help us be able to manage the growth within our organization as we provided services, whether it’s utilities, or planning, or law enforcement through the Sheriff’s Office or whatever.
When the county is growing and being successful financially, all of our departments are growing. In so many counties, you think, ‘Oh my goodness, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had just a little bit of that growth. A little bit of that revenue coming in to help us build a new school or do this or do that.’
Does that make you an optimist?
Absolutely. It’s never going to be perfect no matter where you are.
There are people here, maybe, as there are everywhere, that only want to focus on the negatives. Or the problems that we can’t solve — yet. But Brunswick is less, we don’t have a lot of those. Even in the region, the problems we have here, the really big issues, compared to other major metropolitan areas around the state or the country, it’s much easier to manage what we have here.
Your job now includes working with 19 municipalities (the most in the state). Have you gotten the chance to meet elected officials and staff leadership that lead Brunswick County’s municipal partners?
A few. At this point it’s been very informal. What I do have as a goal, by the end of the fiscal year, hopefully to have sat down and met with a majority of them. Now I’m going to do my best, it may take longer than that.
It’s important. It would do nothing but help us if I can have a relationship with all of them.
I think having the 19 towns, I knew about that because I’d been going to regional meetings, manager’s meetings, for instance, and always thought, ‘This is strange. Almost everybody’s from Brunswick County.”
So I was aware of that. I had worked a lot with Chris [May] at the [Cape Fear Council of Governments]. It’s just, it’s an amazing place. And then within the county you have a lot of diversity among the different towns. A lot of neat things and neat places and really good people.
What is one task you hope to complete by next year?
That I hope to meet with representatives from all the municipalities by the end of June.
I really need to get acclimated more internally. When you have 1,000 employees and you have the type of organization that Brunswick County government is, if it wasn’t a busy place and there wasn’t much going on, I could learn it all in 30 days. Or a month or two. But this is so opposite of that.
So much positive and so much positive energy around here moving the county forward. It’s a lot. It’s a lot to absorb so I’m going to do my best to meet and interact internally. I think that’s really important too.
It’s not about me coming in and trying to make a lot of changes. There are not a lot of changes that need to be made here. Ann Hardy and the rest of her team have done such a great job here. I couldn’t imagine a better place, a better situation for a new manager to inherit.
I’m extremely fortunate to be able to be here and to work with our board. We have a great board; very committed and engaged — they all seek out opportunities to learn and do good things.
It’s certainly going to be a big job being the county manager here but I’m excited about it, looking forward to it, and thoroughly enjoyed it already being here a short time.
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